Some checks suspended at Northern Irish ports as staff removed 'for own safety'

All animal-based food checks have been suspended at Northern Ireland ports due to concerns for the safety of staff amid ‘simmering tensions’ over post-Brexit regulation.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said it has temporarily suspended regulatory inspections at Belfast and Larne ports.

A spokesman said on Monday evening: ‘On the basis of information received today and, pending further discussions with the PSNI, DAERA has decided in the interests of the wellbeing of staff to temporarily suspend physical inspections of Products of Animal Origin at Larne and Belfast.

‘The situation will be kept under review and in the meantime full documentary checks will continue to be carried out as usual.’

Daera’s decision comes after 12 local council staff at Larne Port were withdrawn from their duties with immediate effect to protect them.

In a statement, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said the decision was made following an upsurge in ‘sinister and menacing behaviour’ and that the ongoing situation has caused ‘extreme distress and worry to staff’.

Last week, graffiti appeared in the area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland Protocol and describing port staff as ‘targets’.

It is understood staff, who had been assisting officials from Daera and UK Border Force with checks, also saw individuals taking down their number plate details.

The council said it had ‘no option but to withdraw them from their duties in order to fulfil its duty of care and carry out a full risk assessment with the PSNI, Food Standards Agency and DAERA’.

There have been a number of daubings in Belfast amid anger at the protocol, with a raft of new checks on goods arriving at ports from Great Britain introduced at the start of the year.

Just two days ago, police launched an investigation after graffiti emerged in south Belfast threatening former Taoiseach of Ireland Leo Varadkar if he ‘set foot in Ulster’.

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Peter Johnston, said: ‘We have seen what I would describe as deeply troubling graffiti and a very notable upping of community tensions towards the NI Protocol, particularly in recent days.

‘The health and wellbeing of our staff is always this council’s number one priority and that is why the decision has been taken to withdraw them from their work at the port with immediate effect until we have very real assurances and full confidence that they can go about their duties without fear, threat or concern for their wellbeing.’

Sinn Fein councillor James McKeown said: ‘Our staff will step away from this work and will only return when we are totally satisfied it is safe and right for them to do so.

‘There are simmering tensions within the local community at present and we will not stand by and let our staff be targeted when they are just doing their jobs.’

Police last month warned that discontent in loyalist communities was ‘growing’ over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is designed to allow the country to follow the EU’s customs rules and has caused delays at ports because of new declarations and checks.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark McEwan said force officials will meet partner agencies on Tuesday to discuss the situation.

‘The safety of staff working at points of entry is of the utmost importance to us,’ he said. ‘Where we have any credible information we will share that with our partners and take appropriate action.

‘We have increased patrols at Larne Port and other points of entry in order to reassure staff and the local community.’

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